CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith didn’t move Jake Hansen from inside linebacker to outside linebacker because of any shortcomings on Hansen’s part.
Even with his appearance in the season opener against Wisconsin shortened by injury, Hansen compiled 22 tackles, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery as an inside linebacker during Illinois football’s first three games of 2020.
Yet Hansen was told he’d be deployed differently in preparation for last week’s game at Rutgers.
The result? More dominance from the 6-foot-1, 230-pound senior.
Specifically 15 tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack, one pass breakup and one interception in the Illini’s 23-20 victory over the Scarlet Knights.
“It’s kind of a natural transition just because I played it all last year,” said Hansen, whose 10 career forced fumbles have him tied him for third in Illinois history. “Just having a good knowledge of the defense helps that out as well.”
Smith said after Saturday’s win and reiterated the point again on Monday afternoon ahead of this Saturday’s 11 a.m. game between Illinois (1-3) and host Nebraska (1-2) that Hansen changed positions in order to give sophomore Tarique Barnes more repetitions.
Barnes notched six tackles in the win against Rutgers, ranking fourth on the Illini’s stat sheet.
The move, Smith said, was not associated with senior Milo Eifler suffering an injury in the final practice leading up to Saturday’s game in New Jersey. Smith said Eifler’s availability this week is unclear.
“Is that Jake’s natural position? He’s played better there for whatever reason,” Smith said. “That’s not to say he didn’t play good inside. I think wherever you put Jake Hansen, he’s going to make plays and be a great player. But we needed those type of plays from him.”
The linebacker trio of Hansen, Barnes and junior Khalan Tolson (10 tackles, 21/2 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one pass breakup against Rutgers) helped Illinois to arguably its top defensive performance of the season.
It also served as the third different starting lineup for the linebacker unit, going from Delano Ware, Hansen and Tolson against Wisconsin to Eifler, Hansen and Tolson the next two games and then Hansen, Barnes and Tolson most recently.
“We had a lot of guys step up,” Hansen said. “Milo was out, and Khalan did a great job stepping up. So I think it shows that we’re able to shuffle around and play different positions and be versatile, and I think that adds a lot to our linebacker room.”
When told of Smith’s assessment that Hansen has played a bit better at outside linebacker, Hansen credited “a great game plan” for providing that impression.
“There was a lot more opportunities for me this week on the outside,” Hansen said. “Coach put me in position to make some plays, so that kind of fell into place.”
At the same time, Hansen also gave himself credit for performing the necessary offseason work to become a force at any linebacker spot.
“Really digging deep into something that I needed to clean up was some of the tackling out in space,” Hansen said. “It was more of that upon further review of games that I had last year, I think, that was something that I really needed to focus on.”
Hansen and Smith said there’s still room for defensive improvement, especially in preventing big chunk plays. Rutgers’ two touchdowns Saturday happened on passes of 29 and 66 yards from Noah Vedral to Bo Melton.
“Just playing a little bit harder, I think, is a big part of shutting down the big, explosive plays,” Hansen said. “If they do make a play or make someone miss in space, maybe if someone else is pursuing it shuts it down and it’s a minimal gain at most.”
Nebraska quarterback Luke McCaffrey showed big-play potential in last week’s 30-23 home win over Penn State this past Saturday, hitting Zavier Betts on a 45-yard scoring pass. McCaffrey also kept the Nittany Lions on their toes in the form of 21 pass attempts and 13 rush attempts during that victory.
“They obviously like to get it out in space. A lot of quarterback runs with McCaffrey as well,” Hansen said. “They’re going to try and get his legs involved. So it’ll be a good one for us.”